A cold is a mild viral infection of the nose, throat, sinuses and upper airways. It's a common infection and usually clears up on its own within a week or two. If you are fit and healthy, it’s unlikely to be serious. Painkillers can help reduce the symptoms of colds.
Symptoms of a cold
The symptoms of a cold usually develop within a day or two of becoming infected.
The main symptoms include:
Less common symptoms of a cold include:
- a fever (high temperature) - generally considered to be 38C (100.4F) or over (see fever in children)
- a headache
- earache – severe earache may be a sign of a middle ear infection
- muscle pain
- loss of taste and smell
- mild irritation of your eyes
- a feeling of pressure in your ears and face
The symptoms are usually at their worst during the first two to three days, before they gradually start to improve. In adults and older children, they usually last about 7 to 10 days, but can last longer. A cough in particular can last for two or three weeks.
Colds tend to last longer in younger children who are under five, typically lasting around 10 to 14 days.
Telling the difference between cold and flu
Cold and flu symptoms are similar but flu tends to be more severe.
- appear gradually
- affects mainly your nose and throat
- makes you feel unwell, but you're OK to carry on as normal (for example, go to work)
- appear quickly within a few hours
- affect more than just your nose and throat
- makes you feel exhausted and too unwell to carry on as normal
What to do
There's no cure for a cold, but you can look after yourself at home by:
- resting, drinking plenty of fluids and eating healthily
- taking over-the-counter painkillers, such as paracetamol or ibuprofen, to reduce any fever or discomfort
- using decongestant sprays or tablets to relieve a blocked nose
- trying remedies such as gargling salt water and sucking on menthol sweets
Many painkillers and decongestants are available from pharmacies without a prescription. They're generally safe for older children and adults to take.
However, they might not be suitable for babies, young children, pregnant women, people with certain underlying health conditions, and those taking certain other medications. Speak to a pharmacist if you're unsure.
When to see your GP
If you or your child has a cold, there's usually no need to see your GP as it should clear within a week or two.
You only really need to contact your GP if:
- your symptoms persist for more than three weeks
- your symptoms get suddenly worse
- you have difficulty breathing
- you develop complications of a cold, such as chest pain or coughing up bloodstained mucus
You should see your GP if you're concerned about:
- your baby
- an older person
- if you have a long-term illness such as a lung condition
If your GP surgery is closed, you can also contact GP out of hours service for advice, if you are concerned and believe the symptoms mean that you are unable to wait to talk to your own GP.
Stop the spread of colds
Viruses cause colds and coughs. When you cough or sneeze you send tiny droplets of infected saliva into the air. This can pass viruses to other people.
To stop spreading germs:
- always carry tissues
- use a tissue to cover your nose and mouth every time you cough or sneeze
- use tissues once and throw them in a bin
- wash your hands regularly, and as soon as possible after sneezing or coughing
Help yourself feel better
You can take some steps to reduce the effects of winter colds:
- keep warm by wearing layers of thin clothing
- take the recommended dosage of paracetamol or ibuprofen to ease aches and pains and keep your temperature down
- increase your fluid intake and reduce caffeinated drinks, such as tea, coffee and cola
There are different remedies available in pharmacies. You should follow a pharmacist’s advice if you are already taking painkillers or other medicines. Always check the instructions on the bottle or packet carefully, and never exceed the recommended dose. Never give aspirin to children under the age of 16.
Boost your immune system
Your immune system helps you fight viruses.
To help your immune system:
- eat more fruit, vegetables and wholegrain foods
- don't smoke or use recreational drugs as these stop your immune system from working properly
- exercise regularly
More useful links
The information on this page has been adapted from original content from the NHS website.
For further information see terms and conditions.